Hans Gutbrod outlines some ideas that should be considered when thinking of setting up a new think tank. He argues that planning and learning from others are critical for success. And do not forget that management will matter as much as the quality of your research.
Posts tagged ‘ideas’
Is research uptake measurable? Can it be planned? Or is it just luck? This blog post reviews a number of issues that ought to be considered when trying to measure it. The post argues that instead of measuring it, we should attempt to understand it.
[Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing project to study the challenges involved in communicating complex ideas. It has been written by Muhammad Maulana, Research and Development Coordinator at Seknas FITRA, and Bagus Saragih, a journalist at the Jakarta Post Daily]
In the Indonesian context, it is no easy task to encourage transparent and publicly accountable expenditure of State budgets directed squarely, as the Constitution requires, at the promotion of public welfare. This has certainly been the experience of the National Secretariat of the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency (Seknas FITRA) which for years now has been advocating greater budget transparency and accountability in Indonesia.
Policymakers in both executive and legislative bodies, from the central government down to local administrations, have not automatically taken on board the analyses and ideas advocated by Seknas FITRA. Instead, they have tended to ignore them, along with recommendations advanced by other civil society groups (CSOs) generally. This situation has arisen because the institutions to which policymakers belong generally have their own policy analysis and research units; and policymakers have been content to rely on the work of those units.
But Seknas FITRA’s studies have shown that these “in-house” units have not been working properly. One indicator of this has been the government’s failure to translate constantly larger budgets into equally constant improvement of people’s welfare.
Seknas FITRA believes this situation is not only due to incompetence in budget policy formulation. Dozens of officials have been convicted of abusing state budgets and many others are standing trial. Court hearings have shown that rampant intentional misuse of taxpayers’ money has been perpetrated for both personal and political gain. This provides “powerful” motivation for culprits to resist outside criticism and to use research by the in-house units as alibis to isolate budget processes from any kind of interference from NGOs.
Despite Indonesia’s relatively new Freedom of Information Law, poor public access to budget-related documents persists —a problem compounded by lack of public awareness of budget processes. When combined with the government’s chronic red tape, the result has been a complex situation, hampering Seknas FITRA’s efforts to promote public participation in budgetary processes.
To address this, FITRA turned to a strategy focused on communicating its policy recommendations via print and electronic media—an approach that the organisation had been using consistently since mid-2009 until now- instead of directly talking to government officials.Seknas FITRA believes in the power of the media; and that collaboration with journalists must be able to put more pressure on government to listen and to change.
During the first year of implementation of this strategy, however, the media (both of electronic and print) in national level did not give much coverage to findings of FITRA’s budget research, even though FITRA issued an average of no less than two press releases per week. Moreover, journalists were often conspicuous by their absence from FITRA’s press conferences held to announce research findings. Overall, only two of Indonesia’s five national media outlets made meaningful room for FITRA’s research findings.
One problem was that daily news was dominated by cases of corruption involving public funds; and, as a result, the media paid more attention to information from CSOs focused on eradicating corruption than proper and transparent public budgeting. There was likely a lack of understanding within the media of the true importance of budget transparency and accountability: advocacy on issues related to budget management were equated with efforts to eradicate corruption. In response, FITRA also improved communication to some journalists personally to explain them the importance of budget issues.
But the media has its own reasons for doing what it does. Promoting and protecting the public interest are among the basic and fundamental goals of any kind of journalism. Hence, when the media tended to be reluctant to allocate space for coverage of Seknas FITRA’s findings, there was clearly something missing in FITRA’s media strategy. The media’s role is like that of a bridge: when the bridge is missing, catastrophe ensues.
A change of strategy
This situation led Seknas FITRA to think about how to get the media to treat its press releases as newsworthy in their own right. To make that happen, Seknas FITRA studied the specific characteristics of individual media outlets and concertedly developed personal links with specific journalists. FITRA hoped that prominent media coverage of its research findings would help policymakers better understand its ideas and insights on budget management; and, more generally, would make information on budgets more available to the general public.
Today, Seknas FITRA is receiving good coverage in the media and has also become an important source of “second opinions” on budget-related reporting. Good relationships have been established with journalists; and, some of FITRA’s analyses—for example, on budget-related corruption and budget appropriations for the House of Representatives or the Office of the President—have become headline news. Any Google search of current news will advert to the existence of some FITRA report or other; and, at worst, not a week goes by without the publication of some kind of news report sourced to Seknas FITRA.
It has taken a long time for FITRA to figure on the media’s radar screen to the point where its research findings are taken up by the media as newsworthy stories. As FITRA has reflected on this process thus far, it has come to appreciate that budget-related research findings cannot be presented for media coverage in isolation; they need to be placed in the context of other issues already in the public eye. In other words, budget issues never stand alone: even when they may come to the public’s attention in their own right, they need to be contextualised: how they sit with findings on budget misappropriations, as well as with human values, propriety and justice.
Even with good relations already established with the media Seknas FITRA still faces a number of dilemmas in communicating its budget research findings via the media. Often, the media only tells part of the story and does not go to the substance of budget policy changes being advocated by FITRA. The media’s predilection is for “shocking news”. Also, on occasion, its reporting does not accord with information FITRA provides.
Indeed, it sometimes happens that budget-related media reports are presented as being based on FITRA’s research, whereas in fact they are not. From time to time, a particular FITRA researcher is quoted as giving a second opinion, even though the staff member concerned has not done so. In such cases, FITRA does not react: This may seem to be off-handed on FITRA’s part, but FITRA adopts this approach in order to maintain good relations with the media outlet concerned.
The study: learning from the experience
In our study, entitled Where’s our Money Going? Challenges of Budget Transparency and Accountability in Indonesia, Seknas FITRA will reflect in depth upon and analyse its experiences, between 2009-2012, of conducting budget advocacy via the media. The paper will canvass the factors that led Seknas FITRA to adopt the strategy of communicating its research findings to policymakers via the media. It will reflect upon why the media has carried some it its research findings but not others, taking a particular look at FITRA’s reaction to cases where its material has not been published.
The paper will also include the perspective of the media itself. Have journalists changed their way of treating Seknas FITRA’s releases as it has developed its communication strategy? Has Seknas FITRA managed to raise its profile in the eyes of editors? When one media outlet has chosen not to publish a Seknas FITRA finding while others have done so, what factors did they take into account? How have the variety of media types (online, print, television) and the segmentation of each outlet’s audience affected the exposure given to Seknas FITRA’s research? Have particular outlets had agendas of their own that prevented the research from being published? Or, have those agendas prompted certain media to abuse Seknas FITRA in some way? To what extent would the media take Seknas FITRA as a good source of a news story?
The reflection and discussion with the media carried out in this paper will also help analyse policy changes assessed to have occurred in the wake of the release of FITRA’s research findings.
It is hoped that, so far as Seknas FITRA is concerned, this paper will present an accurate reflection of the effectiveness of its advocacy work thus far so that aspects of that work needing further development, modification or even revision can be identified, thereby helping Seknas FITRA to achieve its goal of realizing popular sovereignty over State budgets. As for readers, it is hoped the paper will be a useful point of reference for comparing and contrasting experiences of other CSOs engaged in policy-related advocacy in general or budget advocacy in particular.
If you have any comments or questions for the authors please feel free to comment below.
[Editor's note: This blog is the second from Shannon Kenny and part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideas.]
My journey up until now, since my last post, has been somewhat slow. Other work commitments and not being able to engage with some prospective interviewees has hampered my progress a little.
That said, there have been some interesting developments since my last meeting with Enrique Mendizabal.
I have had an interview with one policy-maker who is the head of nutrition in a provincial government Department of Health. This person has a scientific research background, has been working as a policy-maker within the public sector for more than a decade, and has championed and been instrumental in instituting a number of policy reforms within their field and works closely with several researchers. They have also experienced working in the same capacity in 2 different provinces, each with their own approach to research uptake, policy implementation, and communication. For this interview, I requested they speak in their personal capacity and from their personal experience rather than on behalf of the department. This, I believe, would yield far more valuable insights than an official statement ’ about the relationship between policy-makers, researchers, communicators, media, and civil society.
What emerged was:
- The burden of responsibility for good public health policy rested with them. What was best for society needed to be the watchword and goal for all policy debate and implementation and they were fortunate to have a team of colleagues who were committed to this.
- They felt that they had a good relationship with researchers with regard to communication and understanding of research ideas, since they were speaking to peers – fellow scientists. They speak a similar ‘language’ and have a similar structured, detailed approach to work. They were often an integral part of the research process, through their inclusion on advisory committees, facilitating the movement and access of researchers through and to the system and their ability to influence the research agenda in respect of the benefit for the Department of Health and its aims with regard to better policy implementation. Since they (and ergo, their department) are also part of the initial research process, it is much easier to ‘sell’ research into policy. In one province in which they had worked, though, they felt that there was too much expert (by researchers, academics) debate around policy and research.
- Political support and commitment is not just helpful but vitally important for effective and timely policy implementation. That said, change does not happen over-night and wisely navigating the political landscape was a key strategy for the championing of specific research ideas that they felt needed to be implemented into policy. Working in a province such as the one in which they operate requires a steely resolve on the part of them and their colleagues, since there are no ‘small issues’ in an area with high levels of poverty and disease that ultimately affect the population as a whole.
- On the other hand, the great need to improve the health and decrease the mortality and morbidity of a poverty-stricken population, they believe, has provided an opportunity for innovation and faster implementation of better policy. And where traditional approaches have been less effective or failed, they have had the opportunity to operate with more latitude and flexibility to take calculated risks.
- Support from agencies such as the WHO and UNICEF carried great weight and therefore their support was very valuable for political buy-in.
- Their relationship with communications agents and the media, though, was a less than satisfactory one. The greatest disconnect, they felt, arose in the area of communicating policy to civil society through the press and other media.
- They were inclined to feel that there was a general disinterest from the media (press and broadcast) in public health issues resulting in shoddy, irresponsible reportage and an emphasis on sensational stories, and resistance from publications to give a rebuttal the same coverage. There is also a feeling that, existing problems within the public health sector notwithstanding, there is a general hostility from the press who seem to resist reporting good news stories. They felt that there was a need to cultivate better relationships with the media and find sympathetic allies in this sector, yet this required time which they had precious little of.
- They have a long history of engaging or being assigned ineffective communications agents (who had come with glowing references) but who had no real knowledge or understanding of the policy issues and messages that need to be communicated. This has resulted in them (policy makers) having to operate in a capacity in which they are not skilled – as communicators. This person recognised the difference between knowing what needed to be communicated and knowing the mechanism or medium that would be best suited for the message and recognised that many of their own efforts at communication with the public were lacking in creativity.
- The policy-maker suggested that perhaps meagre budget allocations for policy communications strategies could be part of the problem, since the more expensive and therefore more skilled communications agencies, in their opinion, would not be interested in taking on a project that could not pay for their services.
- The policy-makers are also often reliant on outside funding sources such as PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), US CDC (Centre for Disease Control), UNICEF and the WHO for these communication strategies. This can result in the communication of some policy issues being sidelined in favour of what the funding source deems more important or urgent.
- The result of a strong and often negative media voice and poor policy communication on the part of government often resulted in a public who received confused messages.
My task from here on will be to further examine the statements made by the policy-maker and whether their perceptions are matched by reality, with regard to the local media and its attitude specifically towards government policy around breastfeeding and also at the current communications media that government has used to promote breastfeeding.
Furthermore, a representative of a major funding partner/agency in a subsequent interview echoed some of the policy-maker’s sentiments with regard to working with researchers and the media, but diverged somewhat on the issue of research and policy-debate.
More about this in the next blog-post.
[Editor's note: This blog is part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideas. This post has been written by Goran Buldioski, Director of the Think Tank Fund, but the team includes other members of the Belgrade Centre for Security Studies.]
There are no easy policy changes. Yet, some are more difficult to influence than others. The civil oversight of the military is one of the essential tenets of democracy and perhaps one of the most complex issues in setting up democratic governance anywhere. The Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) has been engaged in the civil oversight of the Serbian security sector since it was founded 15 years ago with unmatched success by any other local or regional independent organisation. The research that a small team of BCSP and I will conduct this summer will:
- Look into the research uptake in an ever changing political context; explore how the policy context has changed alongside BSCP communication attempts;
- Reflect on the changes BCSP made in their communication approach throughout the last six years; specifically how they have used their educational activities to increase the traction of their advice in the decision-making circles;
- Explore the reasons that led them to hire a full-time communication specialist, and how this has changed the communication of research findings; and
- Collect lessons learned for BCSP and other researchers on how to improve the research uptake on such a sensitive policy issue.
Context and related research questions
In the early 2000s, not so long ago, the civil oversight over the military and other state security agencies was a topic off limits to NGOs and other independent actors outside the administration and the political elite in Serbia (and in the Balkans in general). In the last 12 years, with a lot of help of international organisations, the international community and local think tanks such as BCSP, the topic has reached the public domain. While there are a number of policy options available to countries reeling out of an armed conflict or moving away from an authoritarian rule, each of those are easier designed than implemented. To start with, the very idea of civilian control over the military is mostly contested than embraced by the local powerful, military, and political elites. Under such circumstance,s further exacerbated by fierce power struggles between outgoing and incoming elites, independent actors such as think tanks have to tread very carefully. The chapter will look in the way the researchers have pushed the idea of civilian control into the public domain and the interest, resistance, support and concerns they have faced in this process.
BCSP, throughout their engagement, touched upon some of the most politically (and ideologically) sensitive questions in Serbia: e.g. its role in the many regional conflicts in the past 20 years and potential accession into NATO. On the other hand, it has also dealt with more technical issues related to the design and implementation of reforms in the security sector (by-laws, ‘small reform initiatives’) that have improved its performance. We will look at how researchers have reconciled these two in communicating the center’s research findings.
Capturing the specificity of BCSP approaches
In the Serbian context, the image of academic quality of research may take priority to the clarity of the message. BCSP aspiration to earn respect by the academic community has affected the type of analytical products they have drafted as well as the choice of audience and the manner(s) of interaction. Looking at the dialogue between the academic research and BCSP work with practitioners in the field would be our particular interest. Additionally, external evaluators have emphasised the role of educational work in reaching out to different audiences to not only place BCSP research findings on their radars, but also as a better way of communicating complex ideas. We will explore the contribution of education activities to research uptake.
We will also look at who has been tasked with the research uptake and how these responsibilities have shifted from being solely on the shoulders of BCSP researchers to now being shared by a specialist staff (full-time communication expert) and the researchers. Exploring and comparing the practices of securing research uptake under these two regimes should yield some more valuable lessons to be learned.
The design comprises of two key research methods. First, we will carry out qualitative and quantitative analysis of BCSP research products, events and educational activities. In doing so, we will create a single timeline with three dimensions: BCSP research products, events and educational activities. This timeline will be then juxtaposed with the timeline of key events in the sector. While finding correlation between BCSP approaches and the changes is the sector is not our immediate goal, we will try to identify trends and patterns of research uptake as well as approaches by BSCP researchers. Second, we will conduct some 25-30 in-depth semi-structured interviews with two key audiences: a) researchers and other BCSP insiders, and b) policy makers. With the former we will aim to deepen our understanding of the BCSP approaches, while from the latter we would aim to extract the impact and the real research uptake achieved by BCSP.
We look forward to enriching ourselves and the field in this process.
If you have any comments or questions for the authors please add them below.
[Editor's note: This blog is part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideas. Anna Coutsoudis, established the first community-based breastmilk bank in South Africa www.ithembalethu.org.za and is a founding member of HMBASA (Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa) www.hmbasa.org.za which she currently chairs. Shannon Kenny and Patrick Kenny and independent communication consultants; creative directors, Mixed Media, Durban. It was written by the authors.]
South Africa is one of the countries with an ever-increasing infant mortality rate. In fact it is one of the few countries where this has happened. Coutsoudis, Coovadia and King cited in The Lancet that research has shown how infant mortality is on the rise because of the increase in Formula Feeding. Breastfeeding decreases the risk of infant mortality. Unfortunately, formula feeding is increasing despite the fact that breastmilk is scientifically proven to be immeasurably better.
Unfortunately, breatmilk/breastfeeding do not have the advantage of better marketing and advertising. One solution to this problem is the re-branding of breastmilk/breastfeeding.
“The People, The Planet, The Can” started life in 2011 as a multi-media communication strategy for effective breastmilk marketing that recognises the need to involve all of society (not just women and expectant mothers) and seeks to convince them of the facts by addressing their aspirations to ultimately affect and effect a cultural change.
The chapter we propose for this book is a critical analysis of our relationship as a researcher/communicator team within the framework of this policy issue. We will address how and why this relationship came about; our strengths and how these have been built upon; our limitations and how these have been overcome/compensated for or steps being taken to do so; etc.
We also hope to explore the relationship between policy makers and their funding partners (aid agencies, foundations, the private sector and business) and the roles of these funding partners as de facto policy-makers and the manner in which policy has traditionally been communicated to the broader public via the media and information or education campaigns, for example.
As a researcher/communicator team, we are of the belief that at the heart of the challenge to effectively communicate complex research ideas to policy-makers should lie a clear communication strategy that includes the knowledge that these ideas/findings ultimately will need to be communicated to civil society.
Based on our experience, we would like to put forward the case for more and better researcher/communicator partnerships around policy issues. While our relationship has been a healthy, long-term one, so to speak, we cannot claim to be experts in this arena but merely ‘experienced’ at conducting just such a relationship.
From experience we have learned that:
- Constant critical evaluation and review of communication methods is necessary. Critical evaluation will involve admitting that ‘we got it wrong’ or ‘we could do it better/differently’ when presented with evidence.
- Communication is a process and there has to be a recognition that no strategy, method or medium will be appropriate for every context.
- Sometimes, ‘getting it right’ will require taking an opposite view or looking at the successes of one’s detractors.
- There has to be a long-term commitment to creating and refining communication methods.
- Policy-makers are as much a part of society as any other member of civil society and are therefore influenced by prevailing cultural norms, advertising and promotional material.Therefore, when communicating ideas to policy-makers that conflict with a prevailing cultural norm, researchers and communicators need to take into account that the facts accompanied by a strong emotional argument will be more persuasive than mere facts.
- Formulation of a communication strategy may require partnerships with individuals or organisations who have resources in the form of skills and/or funds of which the team has little or no in offer.
Most importantly, what and how we communicate ultimately affects the lives of people – individuals, families, communities, nations -and in our specific case, is very much a matter of life and death.
The research process to test these lessons will include, where possible, interviews with and drawing comments from policy-makers and their funding partners and supporters; individuals and organisations with whom we have partnered as well as those opposed to current policy; the media (press and broadcast media); members of the broader HMBASA (Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa) team and members of various sectors of the diverse South African public.
If you have any comments or questions for the authors please add them below.
Can think tanks have the cake and eat it too? CIPPEC´s dilemmas in promoting electoral reform in Argentina
[Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing project to study the challenges involved in communicating complex ideas. It has been written by María Page, Coordinator of the Politics and Public Management Program at CIPPEC. She was involved in the Single Ballot project from the very beginning.]
In Argentina, we use the French ballot voting system: each political party prints, distributes and supplies its own ballots during Election Day. The system worked fairly well while there were two main parties of relatively equal in size, territorial outreach and resources. But after the 2001 socioeconomic and political crisis, extreme party fragmentation rendered the voting system archaic, ineffective and inequitable. Ballot proliferation is now so extensive that it is almost impossible to cast an informed vote; ballot theft has become widespread; and the larger parties and incumbents enjoy an important advantage due to greater capabilities for printing, distributing and watching over their ballots.
In the 2007 national election there were numerous accusations of ballot theft and serious shortage of party monitors. As a consequence, opposition parties and civil society organisation began to demand the adoption of the single ballot system. CIPPEC joined the choir. In spite of our claims, the national government continued to be consistently reluctant to consider the change.
Back then, we were completely caught in the incumbents-opposition confrontation dynamics, blended in the civil-society-plus-opposition group. How could CIPPEC, a think tank, make a difference in advocating for the adoption of the single ballot? How to find a distinctive and more constructive approach? The challenge, we concluded, was to reintroduce the issue in the public agenda with a completely new perspective. We had to change the terms of the public debate.
We didn’t know at the time that it was the beginning of a road that took us from evidence based advocacy to implementation and evaluation. It has been quite a ride, with no few dilemmas and difficult choices. And it has not ended yet: the National Congress is now discussing a reform to change the voting system and we have been asked to provide a technical opinion for the Constitutional Affairs Committee.
Building the case was relatively easy; we shifted the argument from equity among parties to citizen´s rights. By adopting the single ballot system the State takes on the responsibility to grant every citizen the supply of all electoral options, thus protecting a fundamental political right: the right to choose and be elected. International experience and the specialised literature were on our side. But once we had a solid case, how could we communicate our arguments to inform the public debate in a constructive way? How to translate them for the media? How to make them attractive for our policy community?
CIPPEC´s advocacy for the Australian ballot was made public by disseminating a short document among policy makers and journalists and several op-eds published in the national press. Our citizen-oriented approach to the issue was key to make our voice stand out as distinctive, equanimous and qualified.
We succeeded to positioning ourselves as Australian ballot champions. Which, in turn, lead us to being involved in the implementation of the reform. In December 2010, the province of Santa Fe -the third electoral district in size- introduced the Australian ballot, to be used for the first time in the 2011 provincial primary elections. The governor -the first socialist to run an Argentine province- requested CIPPEC´s support for the implementation of the new voting system. We had mixed emotions –and interests: we were thrilled to be a part of this pioneering experience, but we also knew that there was a considerable risk in getting involved. What would happen if the election went wrong? Would a failed first attempt affect our role of evidence-based champions? We decided to take the risk.
Our journey had one more unexpected twist. The government of Santa Fe requested us to conduct an evaluation of the implementation of the single ballot in the provincial general elections. Did it make any sense? Could we stand on both sides of the desk?
Our case study will seek to share, analyse and discuss the various challenges, hazards and choices we had to face as a consequence of involving in the different phases of the policy making process and the different communication tools we used along the way. We will also consider how, if any, different communication and research approaches could have improved this process. For us, it has been a fascinating and extremely educational ride, and we’d like to share it with others.
If you have any comments or questions for the authors please feel free to comment below.
A few months ago I posted a call for proposals for a new edited book on communicating complex ideas. This is an update of the project that is not underway. Over the next few of days I’ll publish the posts that the authors have written as an introduction to their chapters:
- From Argentina: The challenge of research uptake in governance policies: electoral reform in Argentina by Julia Pomares, Director of the Politics and Public Management Program at CIPPEC, and Laura Zommer, former Director of Communications at CIPPEC
- From the Middle East and the Golf States: Messages About School Reform in the Middle East: Educational Researchers Adapting to the Arab Spring by Ted Purinton and Amir ElSawy at the American University in Cairo. It is worth noting that Ted and Amir have set up a project blog and so I’d suggest, if you are interested, to follow it directly.
- From South Africa: The People, The Planet, The Can: The social marketing and re-branding of breastmilk in South Africa by Shannon Kenny, independent communications consultant, Mixed Media, Professor Anna Coutsoudis PhD, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban and Chair, Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa (HMBASA), and Patrick Kenny, independent communications consultant, Mixed Media
- From Serbia: Civilian control of the state security sector (with special focus on military) by Goran Buldioski, Director, Think Tank Fund in Budapest, Sonja Stojanovic, Director, BCSP, Radomir Cvetkovic, Communications Coordinator, BCSP, and Marko Savkovic, Researcher, BCSP.
- From Ecuador: Public poisoning as ‘communication’ in Ecuador: Lessons from the perpetuation of harmful technology by Stephen Sherwood, Lecturer and Research Fellow, Communication and Innovation Studies, Wageningen University, Andrea Ordóñez, Research Director at Grupo FARO, and Myriam Paredes, Assistant Professor, Rural Territorial Development, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), Quito.
- [New] From Indonesia: The Dilemmas of Budget Advocacy via the Media by Muhammad Maulana (Research Coordinator FITRA), and Bagus BT Saragih (Journalist The Jakarta Post)
As a reminder, the idea of the book is to explore the challenges and opportunities that researchers and communicators face when attempting to communicate complex ideas to their audiences or publics. These chapters are not exercises in self-promotion nor should be taken as an opportunity to discuss, at length, the idea itself (unless the idea itself is a key explanatory factor in its own stickiness).
They are not research to policy fantasies.
The objective of the chapters is to discuss and reflect on why ideas are often difficult to communicate, explore the opportunities that bringing research and communications offer, and the challenges that this collaboration presents.
The research teams are, most of them, made up of researchers and communicators. And in all cases the papers are intended to be based on a dialogue between researchers and communicators. In this dialogue, we hope, learning will take place.
As the editor of this volume I have taken on the role of challenging and slowing down the authors. As they submit their drafts I am reading through them and encouraging them to stop and pay attention to important and interesting ‘tipping point’ or ‘what if’ moments. I hope you’ll join me in that role and comment on the blogs and even suggest questions for the authors to consider in their research.
- What factors should they be looking for?
- What do you think explains the difficulty in communicating complex ideas?
- What has your experience been?
- Have you been on the ‘receiving’ end of a complex idea? What made you ‘get it’ -or not?
It is worth saying, too, that I am still looking for at least one more team of authors -ideally from Asia but am happy to consider all proposals. Please have a look at the Terms of Reference.
The marketplace of ideas is a powerful metaphor. It promotes the illusion that is a market (with buyers, sellers, and intermediaries) and that what is being traded are ideas (that, in the case of think tanks come from research). But is this so?
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in The Balkans, particularly in Belgrade working with a think tank there (more on this later) and a few new ideas have emerged out of my conversations with the staff, its funders, comparators, policy audiences, and others in their policy community. One of these ideas is that think tanks compete (and collaborate) with each other (and other organisations) on a number of fronts -and not just on ideas.
Think tanks can compete on ideas. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Given think tank funding approaches few think tanks in developing countries have the freedom to develop their own agendas and are instead limited by what their funders want to know. Funders in turn allocate their funds to avoid duplication (this think tank to study public health, that one to study economic policy). This means that few policy issues are debated by think tanks promoting different ideas and solutions.
There are a number of new institutional funders out there (the Think Tank Initiative and the Think Tank Fund are two of them) but their support is never really sufficient to give the centres the upper hand in the development and pursuit of ideas. Their research is still conditioned by the myriad of contracts they sign with other funders, northern think tanks or NGOs, and consultancies.
A good indicator of whether a think tank works as a consultancy (studying only what their funders ask them to) is that they will usually demand more coordination between funders to avoid duplication. Research driven think tanks (independent research) are usually happy with the idea of a public debate, for which duplication is necessary.
Think tanks also compete for funds. Donor policies that have reduced funding for research in Latin America, Asia, and The Balkans, for example, have led to more and more organisations (calling themselves think tanks) competing for access to fewer resources. This, combined with donor’s approach to funding described above, leads to specialisation and a focus on very narrowly defined projects which reduce the number of policy processes the think tanks can influence.
Think tanks also compete for people. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than in any other place, I have been astonished by the salaries paid to some researchers: upwards of US$100,000 for mid-level (and not necessarily top quality) researchers would not surprise me. These are salaries nominally higher than those paid in the United Kingdom and the United States where think tanks are more readily available. In fact, think tanks in the UK would not be expected to pay much and, since they are instead seen by young bright graduates as stepping stones into politics, policymaking, and international organisations, salaries are relatively low.
A better comparison, however, is with think tanks in other developing countries. Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Balkan researchers salaries are significantly lower -at least based on what I have seen. In Argentina US$20,000 will ‘buy’ you a top researcher. The pattern that emerges from this anecdotal evidence is quite logical: where there are more qualified researchers, salaries are lower than where the supply (stock and flow) of qualified researchers is low. To attract good researchers, many African think tanks need to pay salaries that compete with the private sector, international organisations, and the government.
In these circumstances, more funding for think tanks normally leads to a competition for the few ‘free’ researchers available or to poaching them from other sectors (often the public sector –which is in it self a problem).
Think tanks also compete for access to policy spaces or processes. Decisions, despite all the talk about complexity and the corresponding jargon, are not made in the cloud. Being present at a key meeting at the ministry of finance matters. Having breakfast with a minister or his or her advisors matters. But not everyone can get a seat at the table or share ideas over coffee. Access is restricted and conditioned.
Some spaces are public and therefore more think tanks can participate (e.g. open consultation processes) but others are limited by ideological or technocratic conditions. In many cases the most ‘academically’ perceived think tanks will be given access to technocratic discussions -and will be trusted as impartial sources of advice; but no more. In other, ideologically identifiable centres will have an advantage and may even be given the lead in developing legislation and policies.
Often, access depends more on individuals within the think tanks than on the think tanks themselves –personal networks matter everywhere (developed or developing countries). And so the competition for people is crucial. Funding also provides access: a donor usually has the power to open doors for their grantees –figuratively and literally. So competition for the right funding is also important when it comes to access.
In addition to all of this, think tanks do not just compete with each other. More often than not they compete, depending on their business models, with NGOs, academic research departments, and consultancies (both in their countries and abroad). For example, ODI in the UK competes with think tanks in Latin America, Africa, and Asia because they bid for research projects that could very well be carried out by local research organisations. But ODI has access to DFID (and other northern donors) that local think tanks cannot achieve, it can hire researchers with more ease than local think tanks, and can build up its ‘organisational competence’ by referring to projects carried out by programmes and researchers across the organisation regardless of whether the proposed team has the experience or not. And since donors like to work across countries and regions, a single local think tank in Sri Lanka or Ecuador or Rwanda will find it difficult to compete.
NGOs have also began to develop their research capacity (or at least the perception that they have one) use this to demand access to more technocratic spaces –often reserved for academics and think tanks. Consultancies, too, taking advantage of their higher capacity to win large programmes are developing ‘think tank’ style initiatives that directly compete with think tanks –of then in their own policy communities. Take for example the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) that is slowly starting to publish and disseminate policy research outputs at the national level branded as CDKN products. What chance does a small sustainable development (or related) think tank stand against the combine might of PWC, ODI, and others?
Finally, there is competition on the label: Many organisations that would have never before called themselves think tanks are beginning to do so in response to the increasing interest of donors on this particular type of organisation. Campaigning NGOs and networks are talking about setting up ‘research units’ and service delivery NGOs and consultancies are claiming to be think tanks because they are learning and sharing their lessons with others, to mention two cases.
One effect of this competition is that the concept of think tanks gets muddled-up and this can lead to a loss of credibility for those who do deserve the label. Another effect is that civil society (and society as a whole) may lose other types of organisations that are valuable in their own right and whose existence and strength in fact support think tanks.
- Avoid simple metaphors like ‘marketplace of ideas’.
- Funders need to pay more attention to how their funding strategies affect think tanks and their communities (including all these other actors) at the global, regional, and national levels. Demanding that more money is spent ‘in country’ is not responsible policymaking; and neither is it to channel funds via large northern think tanks or corporations.
- Funders need to fund the development of new generations of potential researchers by investing (and leveraging public and private funds) in universities. Workshops are not enough to learn how to be a good researcher -this has to be learned from early on.
- Funders should also attempt to leverage domestic funds to reduce dependence on foreign funds but also make research funding more local -and avoid, in that way, overfunding and dependence on northern centres, NGOs, and consultancies.
- Think tank funders have to publish their own definitions of think tanks. This has to be flexible (assume that it may change over time) and local (a think tank in Peru does not have to be the same as a think tank in Sri Lanka). Other types of civil society organisations should also be supported and not encouraged (even if unintentionally) to ‘become’ think tanks.